The New York Yankees are being faced with the challenge of filling the biggest hole they've had in many years: that which has been left by Mariano Rivera.
"I'm coming back. Write it down in big letters. I'm not going out like this."
Those were Rivera's words to the media on Friday night in Kansas City, one day after he suffered a potentially season-ending knee injury. While shagging fly balls during batting practice on Thursday, Rivera fell on the warning track, tearing his ACL and damaging his meniscus.
Typically, these injuries take a while to recover from. Optimistically, Rivera hopes to be ready to pitch by Spring Training 2013, but it is difficult to predict how he will fare with the rehabilitation at forty-two years of age.
What is known for certain is that the Yankees will have to fill his shoes sooner than they anticipated.
David Robertson, who has been the Yankees' best non-Rivera reliever over the past two years, figures to be Joe Girardi's first choice to pitch the ninth inning in close ballgames. He closed out Friday's 6-2 win by striking out the side in the ninth inning. Robertson has not given up a run so far this season in his twelve innings of work, striking out 21 and only walking three. However, Robertson has been openly tentative about assuming the new role in the bullpen.
“I’m not Mariano Rivera, I’m not going to be able to go out there and do what he does, get outs real quickly, I’m a different style pitcher,” Robertson said on Friday. “I’ve never done it, so all I can do is say I’ll try real hard.”
The Yankees also have Rafael Soriano, who closed for Tampa Bay in 2010. However, Soriano had a disappointing season for the Yankees last year, pitching to a 4.12 ERA in 42 relief appearances. He does provide an experienced option for the Yankees, though, if they wish to utilize it.
A third option, however, might be the most logical of them all. Rather than placing the burden of replacing Mariano Rivera as the team's "closer" upon one of these pitchers' shoulders, it might make sense to put the traditional bullpen construction aside for the time being.
In a vacuum, it would make sense for a team to use its best relief pitcher in only the most important situations, its second best relief pitcher in the next-most important situations, and so on.
Consider a road team with a three-run lead in the bottom of the ninth, and likewise, a road team in a tie ballgame in the bottom of the ninth. In the former situation, the team just needs a pitcher to get three outs and give up two or fewer runs in order to win the game. Surely any bullpen should have several pitchers that would be capable of this.
However, in the tie-game situation the relief pitcher must get three outs without giving up any runs in order for the team to have a chance to win the game. Therefore it would make sense to use your best available pitcher in this situation.
Yet almost every Major League team will use their closer in the first situation because it is a "save" situation, and use a different relief pitcher in the non-save situation. Managers surely cost their teams several wins each year by sticking to these common strategies.
This situation in which the Yankees find themselves might be the ideal situation for change in Major League Baseball.
Assuming that Joe Girardi believes Robertson to be his best relief pitcher and Soriano his second-best, then naming a closer might not be in the best interest of the team. Rather, having Soriano pitch the ninth inning with two or three run leads and having Robertson pitch in one-run and tie ballgames would probably be a more effective strategy. Not only would this allow the Yankees to use their best relief pitcher when they most need him, but it would also take some of the pressure off of either individual by letting them share the traditional role of the "closer."
In the coming days we will see how Girardi and the Yankees will handle this situation. This is a huge blow to a team that no longer has as much of a great advantage in the late innings of games as they have had for the past fifteen years. The whole Yankees' pitching staff, not only Robertson and Soriano, will have to step up and put up a good fight in order to keep this team in the thick of competition in the AL East.